Trump releases 'nice note' from Kim Jong Un praising progress despite setbacks in talks

The Washington Post

President Trump on Thursday released a personal letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un praising the "epochal progress" since their summit in Singapore last month, despite a series of recent setbacks that have cast doubt on denuclearization talks.

In a tweet, Trump posted copies of the four-paragraph note - both in Korean and translated into English - in which Kim stated that the summit was the "start of a meaningful journey" and that a "new future" between the two nations "will surely come to fruition."

"I deeply appreciate the energetic and extraordinary efforts made by Your Excellency Mr. President for the improvement of relations," Kim said, according to the letter, dated July 6. That was the day Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived for two days of meetings with top North Korean officials, which ended on a sour note after Pyongyang blasted the U.S. side over a "unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization."

In his note, Kim offered no reassurances that he is committed to relinquishing his country's nuclear weapons or ballistic missile arsenal, referring more generally to "the faithful implementation of the joint statement" agreed to in Singapore. That statement said North Korea would "work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," but offered not details on when or how Pyongyang would dismantle its program.

"A very nice note from Chairman Kim of North Korea," Trump wrote in his tweet. "Great progress being made!"

Trump posted the note several hours after arriving in London for his first visit to Britain, after wrapping up a contentious appearance at the NATO summit. The president rattled U.S. allies by demanding that the other NATO nations pay more toward their own defense, although he stopped short of threatening to pull the United States out of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

The president has sought to maintain the momentum of his summit with Kim even though Pyongyang has showed no signs of taking steps to dismantle its nuclear program. U.S. intelligence analysts said in the wake of the summit that Pyongyang is working to conceal key elements of its program, including the number of weapons it maintains and secret production facilities.

"On the positive side, it shows they have established a personal channel of communication, but it's the same problem all over again - where's the substance?" said Victor Cha, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who negotiated with North Korea as an Asia policy official in the George W. Bush administration.

"Releasing a letter like that does not give any experts confidence that there was anything more to the Pompeo trip," Cha added.

Kim closed his letter to Trump by suggesting that the progress could "bring our next meeting forward." But the North Korean dictator did not meet with Pompeo during his visit this month, viewed widely by foreign affairs analysts as an intentional slight given that the two had met on Pompeo's two previous visits to Pyongyang.

And a North Korean delegation failed to show up for a scheduled meeting Thursday with U.S. officials in the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea to discuss the repatriation of remains of U.S. military troops during the Korean War.

The issue has been fraught with mistrust for decades and no transfers of remains have taken place since 2005. The two sides agreed in Singapore to work toward the "immediate repatriation of those already identified." Trump told supporters at a campaign rally last month that 200 remains already had been returned, an assertion denied by U.S. military officials.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters traveling with Pompeo in Europe that the North Korean side has said they are prepared to meet on Sunday instead. "We will be ready," she said.

Despite such setbacks, Trump has continued to maintain that progress is being made. He tweeted after the summit that "there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea," and he has praised the "great success" during campaign rallies.

During a news conference in Brussels on Thursday, Trump and Pompeo remained upbeat, with Pompeo emphasizing that his negotiating counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, a top aide to Kim Jong Un, has remained committed to denuclearization.

"They're going to accomplish it," Pompeo said. "And now the task is to get it implemented."

Trump called his summit with Kim an "amazing meeting," and he reiterated that North Korea has not conducted any nuclear or ballistic missile tests since committing to the talks in February. He also cited reports that North Korea has halted the broadcasting of propaganda through loudspeakers at the border with South Korea as a sign of progress. South Korea also has halted its own broadcasts into the North.

"I really think that we established a very good relationship," Trump said. "We'll see where it all ends."

Yet behind the scenes, the Trump administration has showed that it recognizes that the president's diplomatic gambit has hit a roadblock and that additional pressure on Pyongyang will be necessary.

On Thursday, the United States said North Korea has already exceeded the annual cap allowed for oil imports, and asked the United Nations to order an immediate halt to all transfers of oil to the country. The request underscored the United States' determination to keep squeezing North Korea through existing economic sanctions, even though Trump declared ahead of the summit that he no longer would use the phrase "maximum pressure" to describe his administration's strategy.

In Thursday's report submitted to the U.N. committee responsible for monitoring North Korean sanctions, the United States said North Korean tankers filled up with oil using ship-to-ship transfers at least 89 times in the first five months of 2018.

According to a copy of the report seen by The Washington Post, U.S. officials calculated that even if the tankers carried only one-third of their full load, North Korea would have already exceeded the annual quota of 500,000 barrels allowed under U.N. sanctions.

In a letter accompanying the report, the United States asks the sanctions committee to notify every country in the United Nations that North Korea has breached the annual quota. It also asks the committee to call for "enhanced vigilance" against attempts to circumvent sanctions through ship-to-ship transfers of oil.

But analysts have warned that the Trump administration's sanctions strategy has already begun to falter in the wake of the summit, as China and other countries begin to relax punitive measures. And Trump, having already declared success, has put his aides in a more difficult position.

"How do you negotiate over things your boss has already taken credit for?" Cha said.

The Washington Post's Adam Taylor in Seoul and John Hudson traveling with Pompeo contributed to this report.

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